HEARTS’ 20-match unbeaten league run came to an end at Tynecastle as Falkirk recorded a deserved win against the Scottish Championship leaders.
Craig Sibbald produced the game’s winner with ten minutes remaining to consign Hearts to a league defeat for the first time since May 7 last year.
Genero Zeefuik had opened the scoring just 90 seconds into his Tynecastle debut. He also set up substitute James Keatings to level the score at 2-2 in the second half. However, Falkirk’s performance and energy proved too much for the hosts to cope with. Rory Loy scored a penalty to level at 1-1 and John Baird lashed the ball into the top corner after half-time to put the visitors 2-1 ahead.
After Keatings’ equaliser, Sibbald’s run and composed finish settled a very entertaining and highly watchable game of football. If the result was a surprise to many, no-one inside the stadium could argue that Falkirk did not earn their three points.
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson’s intent was clear from kick-off with the hulking Zeefuik paired with the equally imposing Osman Sow in attack. Within 90 seconds, those two combined to produce the opening goal. Zeefuik’s pass sent Sow in behind the Falkirk defence on the left, and his low cross was stroked into the net by the onrushing Dutchman - who was then booked for his celebrations.
Falkirk instantly went on the attack and ought to have equalised following a set-piece. Sibbald’s low left-footed delivery deflected off Jamie Walker and arrived at the back post for the unmarked Peter Grant. From around five yards, he somehow sent the ball over the crossbar with his left foot when it looked easier to score.
Sibbald shot narrowly wide moments later after Hearts carelessly ceded possession on the edge of their own penalty area. Then, on 19 minutes, Loy fastened on to Luke Leahy’s through pass to go one-against-one with Neil Alexander. The Hearts goalkeeper saved with one hand but Falkirk continued causing problems with crisp, high-tempo passing interchanges in the final third. From one of several one-twos, midfielder Mark Kerr eyeballed Alexander but shot was off target on the angle. In the technical area, manager Peter Houston could only lament his team’s profligacy in front of goal.
Neilson changed from a 4-4-2 shape to a 4-2-3-1 in the hope of stemming the flow towards the Hearts goal. The hosts were minus the suspended Alim Ozturk, with teenager Jordan McGhee deputising at centre-back. It was he who conceded the penalty from which Falkirk did finally restore parity. McGhee lunged in and fouled Loy going for a bouncing ball just inside the box. Referee Don Robertson gave the award and Baird stepped up and drove the spot-kick high to Alexander’s right. In truth, it was no more than Houston’s side deserved at that stage.
Blair Alston forced Alexander to save his 25-yard drive on 37 minutes as the Tynecastle home crowd grew slightly restless. The interval arrived with Falkirk looking more assured that their opponents. The question was whether they could sustain their high energy approach and pressing game for 90 minutes in what was an open and entertaining match.
Seven minutes after the restart, they offered a hint of an answer. Loy took the ball along the edge of the Hearts penalty area with little challenge before timing a precise left-footed shot high into the top corner, leaving Alexander helpless. Falkirk were ahead and Hearts were now staring their first league defeat of the season in the face. They needed a response.
On 59 minutes, there were howls for a penalty as Grant appeared to bundle Sow to the ground. The referee was unmoved. Then, from Gomis’ swirling cross, Nicholson’s header forced an impressive one-handed save from Jamie MacDonald in the Falkirk goal. Captain Danny Wilson was off target with a free-kick and a header as pressure mounted. Tackles flew in and there were a few heated exchanges as the game wore on.
MacDonald smothered an effort from Keatings soon after he replaced Sow, but the diminutive striker was not to be outdone. Buaben’s ball into the box was beautifully cushioned into his path by Zeefuik and Keatings had no hesitation in planting the ball into Falkirk’s net. The cheers from the stands were possibly as much in relief as joy and Keatings looked delighted at making such a positive impact.
He could only look on in despair as Falkirk restored their advantage with ten minutes left. Morgaro Gomis was dispossessed by Blair Alston while dribbling 25 yards from goal. Sibbald collected the ball and neatly evaded a challenge before dispatching his low finish into the bottom corner.
Hearts pushed and prodded in the remaining minutes but could not find another equaliser. The final whistle signalled the end of a league run which many hadn’t expected at home. Nonetheless, Falkirk deserved all the credit for an excellent overall performance.
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Alexander; Paterson, McGhee, Wilson, Eckersley; Walker, Buaben, Gomis, Nicholson; Zeefuik, Sow.
65: Keatings for Sow
82: Holt for Gomis
Unused subs: Hamilton, Pallardo, Oliver, Carrick, McKay.
Falkirk (4-4-2): MacDonald; Duffie, Vaulks, Grant, Leahy; Alston, Taiwo, Kerr, Sibbald; Loy, Baird.
82: Smith for Taiwo
86: Dick for Baird
90: Biabi for Loy
Unused subs: Bowman, Maybury, Cooper, Morgan.
Referee: Don Robertson.